There are a lot of unrelated things going on here that we tried to harmonize with the bonkers label art.
First: I’ve wanted to tackle an Irish Red Ale for some time now. Reds are not complex beers–malty, a bit dry, medium in alcohol level. Getting the color right is the tricky part. Beer essentially comes various colors of brown (have we discussed all my failures in making a purple beer?) because that’s the color that malted grain is. One of the standard color scales, SRM, starts at 1—a light straw color—and tops out at about 40—basically black. The deeper the roast on a particular malt, the darker it is, and the darker the hue is that` it lends to the finished product. It doesn’t take a lot of black patent malt–5-10% of the bill—to make it dark as night.
So there’s a very narrow window in the beer-brown spectrum that, to my eye, credibly registers as red, and you have to carefully calibrate your grain bill to wind up there. Foxfire Chestnut Ale was originally conceived as a variant of an Irish Red but it looked too brown to me, so it became a brown ale. How to get to the right result? Confidentially: I just nicked the grain bill from someone else’s online recipe. They’ll never know. I freestyled the hops a bit to make the recipe, taken as a whole, my own.
My brewing software predicted that Foxfire would yield an SRM of 12.7. This recipe came in at a 12.1. The beer itself does register redder than Foxfire did. You can be the judge. As to the taste, friend Skip reports that this is his favorite HLH brew so far, so something must have worked!
Second: I became taken with the idea of a Cloud Prayer after it came at me from a couple of vectors: “The Cloud Prayer” from A.C. Newman’s 2004 debut solo The Slow Wonder and “The Spirit of Giving”, which caps The New Pornographers’ 2007 Challengers. The former appears to be a rueful mythologizing of a self-involved ex-lover. The latter is a typical Dan Bejar lyrical inversion—it’s about the “spirit of giving… in”—that curdles Christmas imagery into something about greed and surrender, with an outro of Dan ranting over angelic voices singing “Cloud prayer Mary come on”. Trust me, it’s captivating.
There’s undoubtedly a richer set of associations they were playing with here, so I went searching for the origins of the phrase. The New Pornos song is a cover of the B-side to a single Destroyer contributed to Sub Pop’s 2001 Singles Club, but the original doesn’t feature the outchorus. Newman arranges the Pornos’ music, so we can assume he bears some responsibility for adding the outchorus. Newman’s song is really a self-cover of one of his contributions to Superconductor’s 1996 Bastardsong, where it was a spacey reprieve from Superconductor’s eccentric 6-lead-guitar attack.
The earliest Google result I got for Cloud Prayer, ignoring hits where the words just happen to sit next to each other, is for the song “Cloud Prayer” from Inter-Dimensional Music, a 1975 album by early New Age artist Iasos. It’s an instrumental that bears nothing in common with the Superconductor / A.C. Newman track. But on the other hand: Bastardsong lifts the Inter-Dimensional Music album art wholesale. They weren’t just inspired, they stole it.
And from there the trail goes cold.
Third: Bowie has a lot of stuffies, but they don’t all hold the same place in his Bernadoodle heart. The teddy bear we got him when he was a puppy has never really interested him. He’s got a couple of dinosaurs—he kept raiding my home office to steal the pterodactyl my mom sewed for me from a Smithsonian kit when I was a child, so I bought him a heavy-duty version of the same to take the edge off. The pterodactyl has some satisfactory biting surfaces.
But on one Petco trip I picked up the Leaps and Bounds Rainbow Llamacorn, and this became Bowie’s baby at once. I don’t know what it is—the softness, the heft, the shape of the neck—but the Llamacorn is prized above all other toys. We bought him a second one and have a couple in reserve just in case. There are games: he will steal them from their home upstairs and drag them into the sunshine of the yard; at bedtime I will throw them up the stairwell to our second-floor bedroom, to his great distress.
The Llamacorn has become such a beloved pet that it deserved commemoration in a beer.
The synthesis: Irish Ale, A.C. Newman’s lyrical obsession, a dog toy—elements with no common thread. How to integrate them?
A Cloud Prayer may very well be a prayer to a thunder god. It’s pretty obscure, but there appears to have been a Celtic god of thunder. His name was Taranis and his symbol was a chariot wheel. Given the disparate invasions of Ireland, he could have been a syncretization of the roman Jupiter and the Norse Thor. Not much is known about Taranis—so it can’t be disproven that his chariot was pulled by a team of rainbow llamacorns.
And now that saptarahita from Indonesia has illustrated his team, I believe that we can take it as established historical fact.
As I went through my musical awakening as a teen in 80s Oregon, it was critical to delineate your musical territory. This was more than aesthetics—it was identity. Maybe you were a pop kid who listened to Kasey Kasem’s Top 40. Or a classic rock kid jamming to KZEL 96.1.
Some of it was claiming membership in your tribe. If you liked country, you probably lived just outside town in Coburg or Goshen. And there were the New Wave kids—going down the Duran Duran rabbit hole to seek out stuff like Depeche Mode or Japan—many of whom were, in retrospect, probably were identifying with their own gender fluidity (though we didn’t call it that then).
For me it was probably about claiming my difference. I chased the prog dragon through the aisles of used record stores mostly by myself, with a few assists from kids I had met at nerd camp. Then I basically skipped punk and moved on to the headier varieties of post-punk – Robyn Hitchcock, Kate Bush, Husker Du, and so forth.
But boundaries remained clear: Sgt. Pepper was a clear dividing line—everything predating that was trash. Country music was for hicks. Easy listening was for old folks. Dance music was for idiots.
I could write a separate essay continuing on about the aesthetic service streaming services have done in breaking down genre walls, but this is really an essay about my biases as they relate to Scott Walker.
In the 60s Walker (an American) became a pop idol in Britain singing easy-listening music in a crooning baritone, bathed in syrupy string arrangements. Even showtunes. As the 70s begin he gets really into art films and Jacques Brel, and his music becomes more abstract and symbolic. But it still bears all of those easy-listening hallmarks—he sounds like Frank Sinatra in a world where the British Invasion never happened.
He spends the rest of his career basically rejecting anything that happens in popular music, instead figuring out how to incorporate Xenakis and white noise into the albums he releases every decade or so. By the time he releases The Drift in 1996, he’s hauling pig carcasses into the studio and mauling them to get that perfect percussive sound to accompany static blocks of violin chords for his song about Benito Mussolini’s mistress.
The funny thing about me is: I get the pig carcass thing—it’s the easy listening, as heard on Scott 3‘s “It’s Raining Today”, that I at first found really alienating.